An Anthology of the Undelivered, the Missing, the Returned….
Edited by Conrad Williams
Titan Books 2016
Stories by Steven Hall, Michael Marshall Smith, Joanne Harris, Alison Moore, Christopher Fowler, Pat Cadigan, Ramsey Campbell, Claire Dean, Andrew Lane, Muriel Gray, Nina Allan, Adam LG Nevill, Lisa Tuttle, Nicholas Royle, Angela Slatter, Maria Dahvana Headley, China Miéville, Kirsten Kaschock.
When I real-time review this anthology, my comments will appear in the thought stream below………..
NO PLOT SPOILERS INTENDED
THE GREEN LETTER by Steven Hall
I enjoyed this forensic dissection disguised as fiction of what we know of the preternatural green letter, whatever its propensity for delivery, recurring accidental blotting and appended cloned accoutrements, the choice of recipient’s circling and duplicated dire consequences. I thought the ‘blank’ was a reference to the blank story I published in 2002, and decided to leave it at that. Inscrutable but enjoyable.
But then I thought – the ‘tain’ of Captain, the Mike or Mick of Michael and the significant marks on the green letter’s envelope and the ‘wain’ of Wayne, I was led to believing the key to this story is the book ‘Letters from the Earth’ by Mark Twain.
(“A way must be conceived to pursue the dead beyond the tomb.” From this Mark Twain book.)
Any by-line links are to my previous real-time reviews of the authors in question.
OVER TO YOU by Michael Marshall Smith (and HERE)
“…something of an allergy motherlode”
Trees as allergy, smoking or drinking as death, death being a disease passed from person to person by dint of being human.
Unless you can pass the buck? Man to man. Gambit against gambit.
A compelling, page-turning tale of a man working from home and trying to kick the habit of social media between bouts of eschewing cigarettes (bar the odd sneaky one), under the suspicious gaze of his loving wife and son. Until he has one of today’s rare, seemingly non-junk, packages received in the post…
To tell you more would spoil your determination to finish.
IN MEMORIAM by Joanne Harris
“She started to cry, as I’d known she would, and reached for the bottle at her side. And afterwards, there was a fire – always a risk, when smoking in bed –”
In the previous story a father and caring son. Now a mother and caring son. Here the passing bucks have wings, I guess. And the ability to eat clothes. Or take them off in business transactions.
This work is an immersive tale of a motherarium – in more ways than one.
An intriguing establishment in Belfast, where failed missives flock; I sense a real place where the Post Office deals with this book’s type of mis-routed letters and packages, and in this story, dead letters, for real, as well as anachronistic ones, reaching a culmination of the narrator’s family history explained, touching and haunting. Foreign names, forgotten memories, et al.
AUSLAND by Alison Moore (and HERE and HERE.)
“L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between”
A sense of Stephen Poliakoff, too.
A stand-alone, quite short, story but also blending serendipitously with the previous work, narrating a reunion from knowing each other years before, now an old woman and a German inventor type, and a mis-routing of photographs, synchronicity and then anachronicity. And a plot revelation you will remember.
WONDERS TO COME by Christopher Fowler (and HERE)
“When you sell people a dream, he thought, they don’t want to know how the dream works.”
This is an ostensibly enjoyable yarn of a new hotel with supposedly foolproof ultra-modern systems of utility that, upon its opening, become a monstrous disaster zone that I shall loosely call “substance abuse” …possibly because of a sample package being sent (for forensic investigation) by untracked Royal Mail instead of some other more reliable method?
On another level, it takes off as a fabulous prophecy of the Trump Inauguration this coming 20 January. Just read it and see. It all fits in. Details such as the performers booked and the hotel called Atlantica (cf Trump’s Atlantic City business disaster) …. and more.
CANCER DANCER by Pat Cadigan (and HERE and HERE.)
“You think a lot of crazy shit when you get cancer.”
This is a genuine compulsive can’t resist turning the next page read, one where a touching empathy semi-autonomously sets itself up a “not-a-coincidence file”, as an apparently mis-delivered post takes the cancer-invaded protagonist on a hindsight gestalt’s path of sensible hope however absurd cancer makes it seem along the way. A loop towards eternity via google maps and slammed down mobile phone conversations. I just wonder if Detective Sergeant Michael Parris (Ret’d) is connected (as he might be connected via this book’s inscrutable internal routes of deliverance) with Captain Michael Wayne? Or with the great erstwhile editor of The Mayflower Books of Black Magic Stories, Dream Trips et al, a possible dreamcatching that should have been side-stepped?
“Apparently awkward was mandatory.”
Cross-referenced this review here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2016/12/31/after-me-comes-the-flood-sarah-perry/#comment-8911
THE WRONG GAME by Ramsey Campbell (and HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.)
“– sometimes it’s a stray phrase…”
Ramsey, you embroil us in your story, implicate us in its entrancing wiles, its synchronised shards of random truth and fiction, and having now read it, it is too late to unread it. Just watch your post. A playing card for a playing card, a gambit for a gambit (from the Michael Marshall Smith story in this volume?) The inscrutable routes between literature and literature that my poker-faced dreamcatcher is set to trawl. After the washing of hands like Pilate, we’ll send someone, one of any number of us, to the stigmatiser for the ultimate tontine prize of horror. Each of us searching for the core original idea, that stray phrase never used as a plot ignition before, with nothing up the maleficent sleeve…but just make sure it does not become lost among the junk or left in endless orbital trajectory among the litter of dark space.
Remember Bournemouth is one of those very rare words (if not the only one) with ‘nemo’ in it.
IS-AND by Claire Dean
“There are old patterns to follow.”
And the patterns for my eventual gestalt started off as – hmm, yes, a workmanlike narration, nice touches, but is this another run-of-the-mill child changeling story on an island beset with even older patterns than my own? Thankfully, I was left with significantly more than simply what it said. I will leave you to decide what that is.
In the same way as the female protagonist needed a dictionary for her boy friend’s shrugs – having come with him to this island where he had lived originally with his mother and where he had once entered a now broken marriage – I also needed a special decoder for this story’s own diffidence. The mis-addressed package that had awaited his return to the island. More shrugs and redactions. His mother’s behaviour and whether there are more child-like novelties to activate if I fully unwrap it or fill in the gaps of both title and text.
BUYER’S REMORSE by Andrew Lane
“That meant I wavered between wanting to feel apologetic and wanting to be irritated.”
Indeed. But, against my better judgement of either, I found myself relishing this slip-easy story of delivering a mis-delivered package by hand, even though I had to travel quite a few miles to coastal Devon by Italian scooter.
I can’t remember a story that I consumed so readily, despite or because there were no stuttering halts along the way, bar the strange cauliflower plants bordering the road, the talk of geographical names undifferentiable by Google Maps, the twitching curtains when I arrived, bartering instead of buying, and the names of some of the barterable books that I vaguely recall from when reading Panther paperbacks in the 1960s. Whether this journey was meant to be disturbing or humorous, I found it a huge laugh in the main and highly enjoyable. Sometimes one wishes one had swapped one’s own children when given the chance.
And when I eventually get to the end of this anthology book, the place of this particular story in it, and in the gestalt of my reading life, will no doubt slot into significant place, like a collage of arcane maps. A caveat emptor, notwithstanding.
“‘Nothing is accidental,’ she said, smiling sadly. ‘Everything happens for a reason.'”
Those Panther paperbacks, btw, were by Lovecraft.
GONE AWAY by Muriel Gray
“Tragedy […] is defined by the protagonist bringing the calamity upon themselves.”
This is an engagingly sardonic, well-versed tale (as narrated by a self-described plain woman from within our country’s aristocracy at the dead-end of her family’s scions) about the wrong-side-of-the-blanket tentacles of the hubris and nemesis of that buried as well as landed aristocracy.
ASTRAY by Nina Allan
“– everything battened down and no loose ends, because every army kid knows loose ends can kill.”
I have previously read and reviewed many Nina Allan works (as you can judge from my link above), and this is a Nina Allan classic, in my book.
Meanwhile, I must say I am a big fan of hand-written letters (“You don’t see that many hand-written letters these days.”) as I have exchanged such letters on subjects such as literature, ideas etc. with one person since 1967, on average once a fortnight, and they are still going on! The odd one goes missing, but rarely. But the whole idea of dead letters etc. has captured my imagination as a result of this anthology, and the way that this topic often leads to compelling and page-turning experiences of reading about intrigues, puzzles, coincidences, detection, travelling by google maps to deliver a mis-directed missive and so forth. And this story is no exception, concerning an army child without the commitments of long stays at schools, growing into womanhood amid a whole skein of dead letters and mad-seeming, Fortean excuses for behaviour, involving all the plot factors I list above. And such tranches of life criss-crossing with other tranches by such means make a telling portrait here of fallible people and other tragedies – but there is no clinching gestalt in hindsight to give a punch-line ending, as things always do carry on beyond the end of every story that captures you by accident or by imagined intent. A story delivered by this book to unknown addresses.
“It was almost as if there was a story going on, a story I had made myself a part of by opening the first letter, and now I had no choice but to see how it continued.”
THE DAYS OF OUR LIVES by Adam LG Nevill
“So many ways to see everything. One skin and then another skin. It had made me squirm and squirt.”
You may think this inwardly Nevill story is the Theatre of the Absurd and the Theatre of Cruelty trying to outdo each other, or a misdirected package of literature in itself, but knowing it takes place in a seaside resort similar to the one where I live makes it seem quite believable, judging by my own experience over many years, even the eating of ‘child-size vanilla ice-creams.’ Or vanevilla?
It tells of a wedding held in a charity shop, and a man and woman relationship of attrition together as a result of this misdirected package, a story that seems more in keeping with bodily excess and manual relief as forms of concocted revenge against complete strangers and even stranger Movements of people each tantamount to a hobbyist diaspora within a ritual re-enactment of a church painting.
THE HUNGRY HOTEL by Lisa Tuttle (and HERE)
”The fanciful story he began to tell turned into a song. I wondered if he was making it up as he went along,…”
This plainly spoken story implicates its young female narrator between her absent fiancė and an obsessive passing affair with a rock band member, one who later rides the ups and downs of wikipaedic musical fame that she witnesses, in later life, from a distance. What actually transpires is locked behind the door of a hotel room somewhere, one you may decide to open or ignore?
There is also the engaging description of a delightful child-like belief in where babies come from, something that I will not divulge here, but if this idea is original to this story, it is really quite a discovery. I was finally left satisfied by this story despite the misdirected pointers toward being romantically run-of-the-mill along the way.
Hunger for love, hunger for fame, leading to emptiness or a shared dream? It depends on who is sent to whom, who is received by whom, and when.
The Faim-Inn or the Fame Hotel.
I slept on this story last night, possibly dreamed about it, and it has now crystallised in my mind as increasingly momentous.
L0ND0N by Nicholas Royle (and HERE and HERE and HERE and, in 1994, HERE)
“Go ahead. Skim. I’m just telling you what I saw.”
This is a conflation, or is it? A story within a story, or is it? A picture within a picture, then? Maybe, if you count ‘found art’ like a red vase or an unknown contraptiveness in a railway station subway… Or a novel within a novel? Yes, maybe, if it is a novel about the Belgium coast (and its postage stamps) facing the coast of England, on this very day, this very moment, when the tides encroach in real-time upon where I sit on the Essex coast waiting for lands to touch each to each, as if in a Geographia poem by TS Eliot, or a tale of dark diaspora by Joel Lane.
This is a wonderful work for me. I take ‘found art’ photographs like red vases etc for some of my real-time reviews, including in 2013 a novel by Nicholas Royle. This story also gives useful advice on the etiquette and art of using Twitter and Facebook. It is a seminal work for our strange times of pervasive communication and the conflation between self and unself that results. A ‘mise en abyme.’ Nicholas Royle fiction writer/editor etc. and Nichola Royle Sussex university literature professor.
I saw the Gilbert and George video about Gordon’s Gin in Cheltenham art gallery a month or two ago. Possibly my last holiday.
CHANGE MANAGEMENT by Angela Slatter
This is primary colours, not pastel.
In your face, an untrammelled essence of Dead Letters and the earlier mentioned Belfast office, whereby Eva works conscientiously in the local sorting office trying to avoid sending such letters to be sorted in Belfast, by sorting them herself, as she was once sorted into life’s hidden pigeon-hole by childhood abuse and later caring for her elderly mother – a life needing change of direction if not in the way the local sorting office itself has just changed management…
This is not only primary colours, it is Grand Guignol, too, the story’s correct label of saving grace, with a sharp-edged division between evil and good, except possibly the new emotionally powerful style of loving that comes into her life via a clutter of bloodstains and epiphany as well as of good and evil. The fable’s moral is uncluttered though: the nature of men. It is as clear as red is from black.
LEDGE BANTS by Maria Dahvana Headley & China Miéville
“Since then I’ve been on this dread postal quest, forced to chew my way through decades of lost mail, trying to get my teeth into things that were stolen from me.”
…this being extrapolation from exactly that, this book’s pastel and primary colours are now mixed and merged with James Joyce, John Cowper Powys, Peter Ackroyd, William Blake, Arthurian fantasy and more. Is it a Tench? I ask. No, a Stoat. Ha Ha Ha.
An ageing postal worker whose job no one questions but involves sorting through decades of Dead Letters in this book’s terms for that expression. One wonders whether he has been sent mad by this activity, imagining he is eating the contents of these packages, beset by the ‘distaff’ oppression of his self as lots of men as old as me seem to be – or wielding his ‘spear’ in self-defence in the misguided belief it is Excalibur, forgetting it was originally wielded by a distaff, anyway, from under a lake! Which is which out of these two authors, I wonder?
And so we are following this ageing man’s mind through such crazy byways he has created for himself.
OR it is all true, a fantasy that exists as reality? “…a skull carved from a bigger skull.”
OR a metaphor for Trump, Brexit and post-truth? Yes, that’s what it is. But who am I?
“You should never underestimate the magic of magic’s passing. The strength of the death of that strength.”
AND WE, SPECTATORS ALWAYS, EVERYWHERE by Kirsten Kaschock
“My book, soaked through days before, illegible — each page polluted with the next, warped, stuck, tearing if turned.”
Each page mis-labelled, too, upon the next, as mis-directed as the parcels of half-pairs turn out to be, yet a gestalt of itself, just as this whole book’s own gestalt is a strong mixture of literary differences, but producing its own child, sometimes torqued, sometimes pilfering, sometimes hitting the spot, a child for whom the reader can act as tutelary agent – a child called Dead Letters.
This story – perhaps the most disarmingly powerful of all within its own foregoing context as linchpin – tells of another tutelary agent, genderless, caring in a very strange way, as if it divided those socks at birth into half-pairs, knowing exactly what was going to happen. A small boy has a new sister, and boys who expected themselves to be the sole centre of attention often hate anything in the shape of a sister come to change that. Not disarming, after all. A poetic density takes the reader along and we understand it because it understands us and our own foibles as once child and later grown-up, even ageing, as I am, once a parent, too, of a boy and girl, in that order, an overgrown-up who needs such lessons to re-learn. To search for my own “birthbloom.” To become a tutelary agent or hawler myself? A Dreamcatcher.
“A battlefield poppy, wound-fed. As I have observed it, much of mothering involves contortion.”
Indeed this book has an engaging variety of styles, full of intrigue and mis-direction, teasing and compelling, as well as cohering an optimal literary theme for a fiction anthology. It makes me wonder why this theme has never been used before. Or has it?
I hope I have done it all justice.
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